The challenges of choosing construction materials

With a huge choice of natural and manmade construction materials, it’s vital to choose the right materials to clad and detail a residential building. In this latest article in our Insight series, Queensberry Properties’ Director Nick Waugh examines the challenges and opportunities faced by today’s new home developers.

“Scotland has always been blessed with naturally occurring construction materials. From Ayrshire’s red sandstone deposits to Aberdeenshire’s silvery granite quarries, our architectural heritage reflects this rich diversity of resources.

“The abundance of workable stone deposits historically meant limited demand for brick, whose own origins as a construction material date back nine thousand years. Nevertheless, brick became more widely adopted by Scottish builders throughout the 20th century, adding context to many suburban estates from the 1980s onwards. Polychrome brickwork adds visual drama to any building, whereas regularly shaped stone blocks infer solidity and permanence.

“Today, materials like brick and stone have been joined by manmade alternatives such as glass and steel. These symbolise modernity, permitting the construction of irregularly-shaped façades like the jagged glass wall of Glasgow’s Riverside Museum. Then there are cladding panels, which can be manufactured from metals including anodised aluminium and copper. Each material has distinct properties; Corten is an unprotected steel alloy that weathers and oxidises to create a self-repairing patina of dramatic earthy colours. Zinc has a low melting point which makes it malleable and energy efficient to work with, while offering natural UV and corrosion resistance.

Falling from favour?

“However, despite its undoubted merits as a construction material, cladding has endured a challenging few years. Headlines were made by a series of panels falling off the Scottish Parliament, while the inappropriate use of aluminium composite material became a national talking point following the Grenfell disaster. These challenges mirror the growing pains of concrete, which was widely used as an external construction material on post-war high-rise buildings until the 1968 Ronan Point explosion. The subsequent investigation found fault with the construction methods rather than the materials, but concrete exterior walls are now largely the preserve of self-builders.

“Today, concrete’s role in construction centres on internal structures like foundations and floors. Meanwhile, cladding is still being used to form the external skins of new structures across Scotland, but only with materials whose fire resistance is beyond dispute. Sandstone is being quarried to this day, and brick remains an affordable construction material thanks to modern mass production techniques. Given this diversity of choice, the biggest challenge facing a builder or developer is often determining which construction materials best reflect a site’s surroundings – and will therefore meet the least resistance from council planners…

Fail to prepare…

“This is where a detailed appreciation of a location’s surrounding architecture and design plays a crucial role. For instance, our Bonnington Mill development in Edinburgh occupies a riverside setting along Newhaven Road, where established buildings range from classically east coast Georgian villas to modern apartments constructed out of blonde brick. The absence of a dominant material in this mixed-use urban area allowed us to specify a light brick across Bonnington Mill’s external walls, augmented by full-height glazing offering panoramic views across the Water of Leith.

“A more architecturally homogenous area than Newhaven Road might see certain construction materials stipulated as a prerequisite of planning. A flexible approach from builders is vital to ensure new developments dovetail with their surroundings, even if specific design elements are intended to form standout features or points of distinction. Our new Waverley Square development just off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile uses horizontal louvre cladding as a standout feature, while natural stone on every building in this complex acknowledge the site’s historic surroundings. As with so many aspects of modern architecture, context is everything when it comes to choosing optimal construction materials”.